Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Platonism in Two Acts (Evert & Lendl Top Player's Tennis and Excitebike)

Act 1.

The space is best understood as bowl-like. The contested object initially has an upward trajectory. The object grows as it sails upwards, but eventually meets with diminishing returns and scrolls off the top of the screen in the manner of an object being pushed out into the theater in a stereoscopic film. The plane this line is perpendicular to is drawn perspectivally, with a vanishing point that is, like the apex of the ball's arc, off the top of the screen.

The line intersecting the plane perpendicularly is a restaging of the player's position in relation to the television, the television providing the plane and the player's line of sight providing the line. Thus the game presents a mirroring of the eye/screen relationship that is angled approximately thirty degrees upward not only from the player, but from the frame in which it exists.

As the ball is both the contested object and the most mobile object, the scope of the space is defined primarily by its movements. These movements are complex, in that they rely on depth as defined by the serving axis. The ball does not, in the manner of vintage video games, simply move across the plane, but rather bounces along the plane, which is itself bisected by a net that, strangely, does not seem to be on the serve-axis as would be required by normal regulations in the sport.

The ball's motion, however, decimates any standard understanding of the space. Indeed, for the purposes of representation it is more sensible to treat the ball as two separate objects - the white circle and the black circle. Diegetically, the white circle is the physical yellow tennis ball while the black one is its shadow. In practice, however, they are two separate pieces of information that must be correlated in the player's mind. The black circle is what denotes the ball's position on the plane, whereas the white circle's size denotes its vertical height along the serve-axis. These two pieces of information can alter independently - the ball does not become larger when it is closer to the position of the implied viewer. Its size is determined entirely by its height along the serve-axis.

More should be made of the position of the implied viewer, as it gives a clearer sense of the shape of the virtual space. Because the intersection of serve-axis and playfield is angled so that the serve axis passes above the player's head, the player's position becomes analogous to that of a television camera. Thus the tennis court is experienced not from a player's perspective (where it is essentially a plane radiating out from the player) but from an audience perspective (where it is more akin to the bowl of an arena, the sides sloping up along the serve-axis). This is particularly interesting given that the game is marketed using the names of two tennis stars of the time, i.e. via celebrities who are thus defined in terms of distance from the player. The alienating effect of controlling the tennis player while being an audience member increases the sense of celebrity distance. Far from the cliche whereby video games are about becoming the avatar, in fact they are here better understood as being about consciously alienating the player from the avatar.

A final remark must be made about the avatar, who, due to the angling of the playfield, moves unusually. His left to right motions are clearly along the screen, but because he can rush the net as well, he has a second axis of motion that goes into the screen. The avatar is thus positioned in relation to the vanishing point, reiterating the fact that he is not properly an extension of the player, but in fact part of the game and converging inexorably towards his own disappearance.

Act 2.

There is an impossible curve. The track is clearly a circuit, as it is possible to perform multiple laps of it, but nowhere does it demonstrate any curvature. Furthermore, the four lanes appear to be of equal length, and there is no speed advantage to the inside lane. There is no way to account for this phenomenon in Euclidean space.

Instead it is easier to understand the game as experienced. The track is a plane. On the plane are obstacles - generally ramps. These ramps could be taken to add a vertical dimension to the game, but this is mostly illusory. Height implies a space above the track in which one moves. In practice, there is nothing "above" the track as such. Thus height is more accurately represented as a measure of time. Height only exists if one is in the midst of a jump and thus not in contact with the track. But the only relevant piece of information at that point is not how far above the track you are, but how long before one is in contact with the track. Any description of the bike's position along an assumed z-axis is purely speculative. (There is no kilogram.)

This then introduces a second plane into the game - the plane occupied by the bike itself. The only feature of this plane is, in fact, the bike. Thus a race can be understood as two planes that diverge (when the bike is "in the air") and converge ("landing") periodically. The relationship between these planes hinges on a correct understanding of the ramps. They are not, as they initially appear, objects with height as such. Rather, they represent anglings of the track-plane. That is, a ramp is a case where the track plane tilts "upwards."

I put "upwards" in scare quotes because it is still a mistake to think of the game as having a third dimension, although this is the regard in which it most simulates that. Certainly when the track-plane is angled "up" it crosses the bike-plane, but this is not relevant in the least in terms of the height. The entire issue can be accurately described by simply noting the angle at which the planes cross, treating the bike as the point of intersection. (Indeed, the most accurate description of the bike is in fact the intersection of the two planes - it has no other meaningful role in the game) It is true that the angle does directly affect time-to-landing, but this relationship is not sufficiently spatial to constitute "height."

The player deals with the track-plane's angling by "tilting the bike," again a misnomer, as in actuality what one is doing is angling the bike-plane to compensate for the track-plane. Failure to keep the planes optimally aligned results in deceleration and crashes. This, basically is the heart of the game.

From that understanding there are only a handful of minor variations. In fact there are four track-planes that can be separately understood, and the bike plane can alter which one it is intersecting at any given moment. That describes the lane system. There is also the Selection B option, which adds additional bikes to the track. These bikes do not, as they initially appear, exist on their own bike planes. Indeed, it is dubious whether they exist at all - certainly the track immediately acquires more bikes than the four that start on it, and it is unclear where these bikes come from. Thus they are better understood not as objects but as a sort of interference pattern stretching across the play-space defined by the intersecting bike-plane and track-plane.


Excitebike is a highly overrated game.


  1. Perhaps Excitebike takes place on a large cylinder containing its own gravity generator to hold the bikes and spectators to it. The action is then viewed through a partial fisheye lens to widen the space farther from the viewer to give the illusion of a flat track.